Rhonda stood at her back door clutching Puddles. She pushed the door open a few inches, enough for the rabbit to escape. The rabbit would have a chance: It was a mild Colorado summer, the neighbor’s pale hay stood in tall stalks, water from sprinklers collected in culverts along the quiet road. Sure, a coyote or a stray dog might stumble on the creature, or a red-tailed hawk might close its talons on the rabbit’s meaty back, but that would be nature’s doing, not hers.
With Puddles gone, she would have time alone with Annie. She would get to know her daughter again the way they had known each other when Annie was a young child, pleasant and accommodating. Annie hadn’t been one of those children who insisted on wearing pale pink tutus. She hadn’t dawdled over meals, pushing beans around her plate with a knife. The rabbit squirmed, interrupting Rhonda’s thoughts. Rhonda grasped it tighter. She heard Annie’s heavy steps behind her.
“Murderer!” Annie shouted, as she snatched Puddles. “She’s family!” She retreated down the dark, carpeted hall, pressing the rabbit to her chest.
It was a shame she couldn’t ground Annie, but her daughter was a grown woman, past thirty. Annie’s bedroom door slammed.
Puddles dropped miniature egg-shaped turds throughout the three-bedroom house because Annie refused to shut the door to the rabbit’s cage. Just that morning, Rhonda was in the bathroom camouflaging the lines that multiplied overnight on her small face, when she stepped barefoot on fresh droppings. She recoiled, disgusted, and managed with effort—she was short and her joints were stiff—to hoist her foot into the sink. She washed it with the soap Pete had used to clean paint and gasoline from his hands. That was the only soap she used anymore, though it dried her skin and made it smell faintly mechanical. Little remained of the bar, which had been as fat as a deck of cards when he died.
When Rhonda returned from work the next day, her daughter was sitting cross-legged in Pete’s spot on the worn fabric couch. Annie wore pajamas though it was five-thirty in the afternoon and stared at her laptop, open on the oak coffee table. Next to the computer were Annie’s cell phone and a book titled Evil Collectibles. Annie traded criminal memorabilia on eBay, an unseemly occupation that, though darker, couldn’t help but remind Rhonda of Pete’s penchant for collecting superhero comics and toys. Her daughter’s hand was lost in a bag of barbecue-flavored chips.
Rhonda pointed her house keys at Annie. “Please,” she said, her throat closing around the word, “for the hundredth time. Not in his seat.”
“He’d want me here, close to him,” Annie said, quietly and without bothering to look up from the screen. She hadn’t run a comb through her hair. Dark curls fell over her eyes and grief had excavated shadows under them. The cushions collapsed under her weight or maybe it was Pete’s spirit pressing them down. Rhonda didn’t rule anything out.
“Sit on the recliner. Or the loveseat. Sit on the floor, for god’s sake. Just not in your father’s spot. Please.”
Annie sucked in her breath. She looked up at Rhonda. “Was anything around here his? I mean really his? The way he wanted it?”
Rhonda grabbed the doorjamb. “You weren’t here.”
Annie dusted off her hands. “He called me.”
Rhonda remembered once coming home early to find Pete stretched out on the couch, cradling the phone and laughing. The energy drained from his large face when he saw her and disappointment momentarily colored his eyes, before he adjusted his features into a smile. “I have to go,” he had said. “Your hard-working mother is home.”
The rabbit poked its head out from under the couch, glanced at Rhonda, and hopped from the room. Annie followed, pausing in front of a bookshelf to examine a photograph. Rhonda dusted the picture every Saturday, never once forgetting that she was excluded from it. The picture showed father and daughter flanking Annie’s eighth-grade science fair project, a chart demonstrating genetic color selection for brown and white rabbits. Annie touched two fingers to Pete’s face and tucked the photo under her arm.
Mine! Rhonda wanted to cry out, but she knew Pete would have wanted Annie to have it. After her daughter left the room, Rhonda considered shifting some of Pete’s things—his Wolverine bobblehead or his miniature Batmobile—to fill the spot where the photo had been. She decided instead to leave it blank, so that tomorrow or the next day when out of habit her daughter looked toward the image, she would find only emptiness and would understand briefly how it felt to be Rhonda.
At least Annie had Puddles, while Rhonda had no one. Not that Rhonda would have wanted Puddles. The animal wasn’t cute the way rabbits in the wild were, white-tailed tawny creatures that startled you and then disappeared into the brush. It was a lump of overweight flesh, excess skin flapping over its eyes. White New Zealand rabbit had sounded exotic when the pet store manager held it up in front of Rhonda, but the words turned out to mean less than nothing. When it wasn’t eliminating, it was chewing the furniture.
Rhonda had bought the rabbit for Annie when she was still grateful her daughter had come home for the funeral and hoped to convince her to stay. The thought of living alone terrified Rhonda. In the undisturbed silence of an evening (or worse, a weekend), she believed she might disappear.
She and Annie had hardly spoken in years. When they saw each other in the airport, Annie quickened her step but stopped short of Rhonda’s outstretched arms. Rhonda lifted Annie’s suitcase from the luggage carousel, the lightness of the bag betraying her daughter’s intentions.
Now Rhonda followed the pair into Annie’s room, which had been preserved all these years as Annie had left it, dark purple walls, Black Sabbath and AC/DC posters. Pete had refused to let Rhonda turn it into a proper guest room. The science fair photo was displayed on the nightstand. Annie sat on the unmade bed, cradling Puddles, the animal grinding its teeth in sharp pleasure. Rhonda knew better than to try to pet Puddles.
“I’ll make spaghetti for dinner. We can have leftover salad,” Rhonda said.
“Puddles and I had the salad for lunch.”
Rhonda pictured the rabbit sitting at the kitchen table, the cucumbers—Rhonda’s favorite—disappearing into its mouth. She imagined waving a wand over the rabbit to make it vanish. “The Godfather is on HBO. We could watch it after dinner.”
“Puddles and I have seen it already.” Annie scratched the rabbit’s head.
Rhonda felt her own scalp begin to itch.
Rhonda climbed a stepstool in the garage. Her hand brushed dead spiders and pierced cobwebs as she reached toward the back of a shelf, but she steeled herself and grasped the dusty box. The pellets would blend in with the rabbit’s greens. She read below the skull and crossbones to see how much to use.
As she stepped into the kitchen from the garage, she heard Annie coming down the hall. She stashed the box below the sink, among dishwashing liquid, sponges and yellow gloves. She set out a bowl for Puddles and picked up a carrot.
Annie scooped orange shavings from the sink and placed them in the bowl. “You don’t have to peel it, you know.”
“I guess not,” Rhonda said, but she kept on until the surface of the carrot glistened.
Rhonda had always enjoyed carrots, the sweet resistant flesh that gave way at once with a crack, but Pete refused to eat them, so she had stopped buying them. Now she could have as many as she wanted.
She sliced bratwurst into the spaghetti sauce warming on the stove. She had given up healthy food, deciding it was a sham. All that expensive wild Alaskan salmon with omega-3 this and DHA that. She should have given Pete steaks like he wanted.
Annie dipped a spoon into the spaghetti sauce and brought it to her lips. “Dad always said they served brats and beer in heaven.”
“And gave out Cuban cigars.”
They were quiet, the hiss of the gas flame and the soft bubble of the sauce the only sounds in the room.
Rhonda turned away from Annie. How often had Annie and Pete talked without Pete mentioning it? And what else had they talked about? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
A small television sat on the kitchen counter and Rhonda switched it on and changed the station to the evening news. She washed the knife under the steaming tap. Above the sounds of the faucet, a meteorologist cheerfully predicted thunderstorms.
Annie dropped the dirty spoon in the sink and left the room.
Rhonda poured herself a glass of club soda and stared at the half full bottles in the liquor cabinet. She’d never understood what led people to drink. She wanted more control not less. She didn’t know what to do with the bottles. Couldn’t bring herself to empty them out, but didn’t know who would drink them.
Their last night together Pete sat at the kitchen table rolling a half glass of whiskey between his palms, his shoes off, the heels of his socks a thin mesh barely covering his skin. He read the newspaper and summarized for her stories of corruption and tragedy, while she prepared a cod soup.
She set down her stirring spoon to complain about a resident at Golden Manor. “I treated his bedsores. You think he might say ‘thank you.’ Oh no. He leers at me and says, ‘Rub some more cream on me, doll. You know it takes me longer than it used to.’”
Pete laughed, nearly spitting out the whiskey. When he caught his breath, he came around to where she was standing and put his hands on her waist. “Patience, my nightingale,” he said. “He doesn’t have much time.”
She resented his taking the patient’s side, but his hands felt good, solid. She leaned against him and they stood that way until the soup threatened to bubble over.
As it turned out it was Pete who didn’t have much time, collapsing of an aneurysm the next morning at his dispatcher’s desk in a Denver bus station.
Rhonda retrieved the box from under the sink. Her hands shaking, she carried it to the guest toilet and poured it out. She couldn’t do it. Not even to Puddles.
She tucked the empty box in the trash and straightened a bowl of unused guest soaps, neatly carved lemons and limes. Annie had brought her own blackish-green liquid soap that dripped leaving a sticky pool.
Puddles sat on the floor in Annie’s room. When the animal saw Rhonda coming, it flattened its ears and thumped its hind legs as a warning. Rhonda placed its salad in the cage.
Rhonda’s alarm went off at six-thirty. Heading to the kitchen to start the coffee, she tripped over Puddles who lay on the hall carpet. She cursed the rabbit and then wondered why it hadn’t moved. She bent down and touched its leg. The rabbit was stiff. Without any help from her, Puddles had died. She had heard rabbits could die suddenly and without warning, but was nevertheless taken aback. She should have been happy but looking at the lifeless creature she tasted bitterness at the back of her throat and felt pressure on her neck that she attributed to the weight of her mounting losses.
She checked on Annie. Her daughter was snoring. Rhonda thought about waking her but decided against it. Maybe she was dreaming of Puddles.
Rhonda lifted her nightgown to let the still-cool morning air caress her skin. She was sweating.
In the back of the pantry a cardboard box held four large jars of marmalade. She removed the jars and set them on the kitchen table. She placed Puddles face up in the box, then reluctantly face down, but the animal’s position in rigor mortis defied her to fit limbs and tail in at once. Frustrated, she twisted here and bent there and almost got the rabbit in when her elbow found a jar of jelly. It flew off the table and shattered on the tile floor, releasing a sweet, glutinous mess that sprayed table and chairs and even Rhonda herself. Shit! She picked the shards from the floor and placed them in the trash. It was all she could do to keep herself from dumping Puddles.
Finally, the rabbit lay in the box. “Goodbye, Puddles,” she said and she kissed the top of the animal’s head, its softness on her lips and against her chin bringing a comfort that surprised her. “Oh,” she said, and then again, “oh.”
She taped the box shut and set it on the coffee table in the living room, writing Puddles on top and when that seemed insufficient drawing a crude picture of a carrot.
Annie would have a choice. She could view the rabbit dead or remember it as it had been, obsessively sniffing, whiskers twitching. Rhonda wished she’d been offered a choice when it came to Pete. The police insisted she identify the body. She nearly told them they made a mistake because he didn’t look like himself at all, but rather like a cousin who stayed with them one Christmas.
When Rhonda looked up she saw Annie. Pete’s robe hung from her daughter’s shoulders, trailed along the carpet, flapped open at the waist. She held the empty box of poison in her hand. “What have you done?”
Annie came at her, a sob escaping her throat when she saw the cardboard casket her mother had fixed up for Puddles.
“I love you!” Rhonda shouted and she realized with joyful anguish that it was true. Love enlarged Rhonda and weakened her. She embraced her daughter who thrashed in her arms.
At work later that morning, Rhonda spooned oatmeal into Lolly Dickinson’s mouth and when no one else was looking, fed some of Lolly’s food to herself. She hadn’t had time for breakfast.
She changed the linens on a dozen beds and dispensed medications to the patients who slept in them. When it was time for lunch, she sat at a picnic table next to the parking lot and unwrapped an American cheese sandwich she’d purchased from a vending machine.
The August sun was high. She tilted down the Rockies cap she had taken from the belongings box, a milk crate filled with items families failed to retrieve—slippers, eyeglasses, drugstore watches, a half-filled diary Rhonda paged through when work was quiet, magazines, puzzle books, even framed photographs. Rhonda couldn’t understand it. Now that Pete was gone everything of his was precious. She celebrated the credit card receipts she found in small bags of hardware because they contained his ungainly signature, and she formed a pyramid on the kitchen counter with his jars of pickled pig’s feet—jars she had insisted he keep in the garage. She set his first edition Catwoman comic on her nightstand and before she went to bed each night she stuck her nose inside the plastic cover and smelled the slowly disintegrating paper. Annie suggested donating his suits to Goodwill, selling his bowling shoes at a thrift store on consignment, but Rhonda refused to give up any more of Pete than death had already taken.
She even held on to his plans. The wall-length map of the United States still hung in the den, marked with pins to show the places he intended to travel when he retired. Each spot was the birthplace of a superhero, where the character was conceived for Marvel or DC Comics and the first sketches were drawn. Rhonda had told him she wouldn’t accompany him, had dismissed his comics as “children’s toys,” words she now wished to retract, but too late. After he died she stood in front of the map and stared at the green pin protruding from Cleveland trying to remember: Batman? Superman? Wonder Woman? It distressed her that she couldn’t say. He had planned a single detour, to Concord, New Hampshire, where Annie lived.
Rhonda knew when she lost Annie to Pete, but knowing didn’t make it any easier. She remembered pushing her daughter in a stroller over the fat roots of cottonwoods, finding stones along the bank of the farmer’s ditch for Annie to toss, the plunk and splash, the unnatural disturbance, delighting them both. Another one, Annie would beg. Another one. But when Annie was in first grade, Rhonda was put on swing shift. She would arrive home after midnight and question Pete. What did he make for Annie’s supper? Did he know not to let her drink water past six and that the Star Wars blanket gave her nightmares? Rhonda didn’t get back on days until Annie was in middle school and by then it was too late. When Annie needed something, she turned to her father. Rhonda would hear them at night: Pete telling Annie stories about the cattle ranch he grew up on; Annie’s endless questions. Waiting for his daughter to fall asleep, Pete would doze at the foot of the bed while Rhonda sat in the living room re-reading the local paper, her tea gone cold. You could hardly blame Rhonda if she burned everyone’s eggs the next morning, or sewed Annie’s Halloween costume a size too small, causing it to rip down the back when the girl bent to tie her shoe.
After high school, Annie moved away, and Pete was the one who sent birthday cards. From Pete, Rhonda learned Annie owned a pair of Charlie Manson’s shoes and the Unabomber’s sunglasses hung in the entry to her apartment.
When Rhonda arrived home that night the house was quiet. Without thinking, she grabbed a handful of greens for the rabbit and went into Annie’s room. She expected to see Annie sitting in bed, hunched over the computer, but the room was empty. The science fair photo was gone.
She hurried into the bathroom hoping to see Annie’s deodorant and toothbrush, but she was disappointed.
She returned to Annie’s bedroom. The carpet, which had been covered with Annie’s clothes that morning, was bare.
Rhonda sat on the bed. Sweat from her palm had wilted the greens. She dropped them on the carpet. A salty and bitter scent rose up from the twisted sheets. Rabbit fur was everywhere. She drew the linens to her face. She lay on the bed thinking about Puddles, boxed up and gone, and Annie, alive but gone all the same. Perhaps wishing for Puddles’ death she had caused it. Such things were not unheard of.
She canvassed the house, removing traces of the rabbit, cleaning the cage and sticking it in the garage. She picked up the hay and the litter the animal hardly used. She boxed up its toys, the balls and chewing sticks, and stuck them in the front closet though she knew they would make her coats smell rabbity.
She opened the cavity of a chicken she had defrosted the night before and began stuffing it with breadcrumbs, shoving her fist into the gutted bird hard enough to snap one of the creature’s ribs. She quartered potatoes, going at them with a carving knife too large for the task, and recklessly peeled carrots, taking off a bit of her own skin.
At seven-thirty she filled a plate with salad and ate while watching a Happy Days rerun. Each time she heard a car turn onto the road, she rose and unlocked the front door, hoping it was her daughter returning if not to stay at least to say a proper goodbye. When the sound receded she twisted the lock again. She had never called her daughter’s cell phone and now she didn’t know where to find the number. She left the chicken in the oven until the late news came on and all that was left was a crusty skin and dried out flesh.
“You can’t call the police,” her supervisor, Lila, said the next morning. She ran her fingers around the edge of a clean bedpan and looked over Rhonda’s shoulder. “She took her suitcase.”
“She didn’t leave a note.”
“She didn’t kill herself. She just went back to Vermont.”
“New Hampshire.” Rhonda was measuring Robert Farwell’s pills into a cup. For the second time she lost track of her count and had to start again. She thought about Puddles. “Be careful what you wish for,” she said and she peeled a spot of dried oatmeal from her uniform and stuck it in her mouth.
When she got home, Rhonda checked the answering machine. Pete’s voice came on. “Rhonda and Pete are out; there’s no one here but us chickens,” he said on the recorded greeting, a private joke, as Pete had always wanted to raise chickens but Rhonda was against it.
“They peck each other’s eyes out,” she told him when he brought it up.
“Something to be said for open conflict,” he said the last time, under his breath but loud enough for Rhonda to hear.
He clucked before the beep. Distracted by the sound of his voice, Rhonda was startled to hear she had a message. She pressed play and imagined Annie’s voice, contrite, but it was the dry cleaner reminding her for the fourth time to pick up her black dress.
She was hungry but the refrigerator was full of rabbit treats, dandelion greens and Wild Hare Sticks. Rhonda slammed the refrigerator door shut and a chicken magnet popped off.
She lifted a puzzle book from the counter and turned to a word scramble but no matter how many times she arranged the letters the result was nonsense except once she formed an obscenity, a solution the puzzle maker hadn’t intended. She pressed the point of her pen until it cut through the pages.
Maybe it had been a mistake to pack everything up so quickly. She retrieved the cage from the garage and set it up with new hay and a full water bottle. She left the door open the way Annie insisted. It was a comfort to see the cage even if there was no rabbit in it.
The next night she went to a pet store. The place had plenty of rabbits but they didn’t look like Puddles. They were brown, with pink noses. Rhonda wasn’t planning to bring a rabbit home. She just wanted to see them, fill her lungs with urine-scented air.
A boy with an earring in his lip came over. “Can I help you?”
“Do you have New Zealand white rabbits?”
“New Zealand white.”
“We have these rabbits. I don’t know where they’re from. Do you want to hold one?” Rhonda nodded. The boy opened the cage and lifted out a small one.
“Not that one. The fat one in the corner.”
He handed it to Rhonda.
Rhonda scratched the rabbit on the back the way she had seen Annie scratch Puddles. The rabbit purred.
“Looks like you’ve had rabbits,” the boy said.
Rhonda began to tell him how her daughter had a rabbit that left turds everywhere but before she could get to the part where Puddles died and Annie left, the boy interrupted.
“I have to feed the snakes. Ring the bell up front if you need help.”
After the boy disappeared, Rhonda lowered the rabbit into a cloth shopping bag. She hurried through the store, knocking a sack of kitty litter off a shelf, her cargo motionless in captivity. Bells tinkled as the door closed behind her. Moments later the boy appeared in her rear view mirror shouting “ma’am! ma’am!” but the way Rhonda saw it, the universe owed her at least one rabbit.
She drove to the cemetery. Pete’s grave was at the top of a hill and she grew tired as she climbed, trampling the straw-like grass, the grass and the dead, toting the rabbit along. When she reached her destination, she set the bag down. Her own plot was to the right of Pete’s. To the left was an unsold parcel. Pete had wanted to buy it for Annie and Rhonda had told him she had. She pulled a handful of grass from the unsold plot and dropped it in the bag. The rabbit ignored the offering.
She tipped the bag on its side. “This is your chance,” she said, but the rabbit stayed put.
She reached into the bag and dragged the animal out. It blinked against the sunshine but remained next to her shoe. She tapped its tail with her foot but to no effect.
A granite headstone had been erected. Rhonda preferred limestone but Annie had insisted on the harder material. “I’d like it to last for my lifetime, too. I may move back once you’re gone,” Annie had said. They were standing in the office of Stones Everlasting. Rhonda backed away from her daughter, into a dusty storefront window, while a salesman wearing a fat tie scratched the correction on the form.
Rhonda lay on the grass, gazing at the inscription she had chosen: Father, Husband. Furious with Pete for dying, she had refused the adjectives the salesman offered. Now she longed for a “loving” or even a “faithful,” but she knew she wouldn’t have the stone redone.
Cleveland popped into her head and she recited the names of superheroes as if calling roll in a superhero school, desperate to remember the one conceived in that Ohio city as proof she had been listening while there was still someone to listen to. Until she ran out of names.
The cemetery was as deserted as her home. She tried to lie as still as a dead rabbit, as still as a dead husband, but dry air tickled the back of her throat and she coughed. The hard ground made her flesh tingle and she shifted. Her chest rose and fell. She could come no closer to the dead than she was to the living.
When the sun dropped below the mountains, Rhonda rose. The walk back to the parking lot was easier than the walk out had been and not merely because gravity was with her and the air was cool. Dusk smoothed the edges of the decaying markers, hid the names of the dead and the other particulars carved on the stones: crosses, angels, endearments. Listening to the hum of a nearby electric power station and the calling of crows, Rhonda forgot Pete and Annie and the rabbit that tormented her. It was a respite so complete she was surprised when she arrived at her car to discover she carried a rabbit with her.
RACHEL MAIZES is a writer based in Colorado. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Witness, The Barcelona Review, Blackbird, Slice, Brain, Child, The MacGuffin, and other literary magazines. They have received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Contest, been longlisted in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, and won Slice Magazine’s 2012 Spring Spotlight Competition. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Spirituality & Health, and other national publications. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.